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Is Film Criticism Really a Dying Art? (Part 1)

Testing Lo-mob app: Tri-Black Filter, Mother helping daughter up stairs
Photo taken by me

The other day on the /Film podcast, we had on veteran film journalist Anne Thompson to chat about a variety of subjects, including Avatar and the state of film criticism. You can listen to that episode by clicking here, or hear it in your browser below:

Some of our discussion centered around a controversial article that Thompson wrote, in which she lamented film critic Scott Foundas’ decision to take a job as a film programmer. She also asserted in the article that “film criticism is a dying art.” Initially, I thought that Thompson was referring to film criticism as a well-paid profession that provides a living wage, but as our discussion went on, I realized that she was, in fact, referring to the concept of high-quality film criticism as a whole (fast forward to around 42:00 into the discussion to hear this). Anne laments the loss of the golden age of film critics:

…the professional film critics, who are paid to write film criticism full time, who have done it their whole lives…they’re really good! You’re not going to find that quality, really, among the so-called amateur film critics. That doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing that or saying that it shouldn’t exist. I’m decrying the end of the golden era.

Before I proceed, let me just say that the purpose of this blog post is not to single out Anne at all. Her willingness to participate on our show and to speak frankly about this topic makes her a class act in my book (most people who feel the same way she does would never even think of appearing on the /Filmcast). But I think Anne’s viewpoint is reflective of the viewpoint of a lot of the film criticism establishment in the U.S. today. And it bothers me.

I understand Anne’s reaction. Gone are the days when a handful of film critics could dictate the national discourse surrounding a particular film. Local newspapers are folding and those that aren’t are firing film critics left and right. When you see people who have made a living off of writing about film (a task they’ve proven themselves worthy of) losing their jobs and having their popularity subsumed by young upstarts with little expertise or training, it can be a disorienting, infuriating, and saddening.

Does this mean that high-quality film writing is dying? Does this mean we’ll never have it again? I have my own thoughts on this topic, so I’m going to postulate a few points in order. Bear with me, and see if you follow/agree with my line of reasoning:

1) There are people out there for whom good writing seems impossible, or at least, not foreseeably possible. They lack proper understanding of grammar/punctuation/spelling and seem incapable of generating original ideas or interesting sentence structure. This is a small, but significant percentage of the people who write seriously about movies (and when I say “seriously,” I mean more seriously than just having a personal blog where they put a movie review once every few months). The question of how to turn an incompetent writer into a competent one is not one I will address right now, as that is beyond the purview of this blog post.

2) The vast majority of writers, for whom running a movie-related website or publication is a major part of their lives/income, is typically at least competent at what they do, and possessed of varying degrees of writing ability. Many of them are mediocre. A few of them are very good. Some are phenomenal, and I would compare them favorably to any newspaper film critic in the country.

3) Here’s where I’m making an assertion on which I have no basis, but you can see how plausible this is to you: The really amazing writers, such as Scott Foundas, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, etc….they weren’t always that good. It’s entirely possible that when they got their start, they weren’t much better than a lot of “amateur” online writers today. What I think I can say for certain is that their writing has improved over time, as they’ve continued to work, to have their writing evaluated by others, and more importantly, as they’ve seen more and more movies.

So if all of these are true, the question becomes, is it possible for some of the “amateur” writers to become great writers? I think so. Anyone who writes a substantial amount in their lives will tell you finding your voice is always an iterative process. We all learn more about ourselves, everyday, in various ways, and we translate that sensibility into our output. As we read more, we absorb more of the mechanics for graceful, incisive, thoughtful writing.

Ultimately, then, whenever people like Anne Thompson (i.e. people who I respect greatly, whose opinions I value, and who are the most noteworthy and high-profile people in the film community) say something like “film criticism is a dying art” or that the age of good film criticism is dying, it says something to the rest of us, the hundreds and thousands of us who love movies and are constantly trying to refine our own abilities: Stop trying. You will never be good enough.

I am back in high school again, and my unrequited crush is telling me to stay away.

One of the things I respect the most about my boss, Peter Sciretta from /Film, is that he is always encouraging of anyone to put their opinions out there. I think he believes that when everyone can contribute to the conversation, we are all better-informed on some level. I’m not sure I always agree with Peter, but in my opinion, more participation opens up a space for those more experienced to give pointers to those who are new. And when people can help others and build an online community, everyone benefits.

Fragmentation is not death. And film criticism can still remain a respected form of cultural examination, far into the future. But it starts with a spirit of acceptance and magnanimity.

When those who have been doing this for a long time try to help those who haven’t – instead of lamenting the current state of things – I think we’ll all be better off. The older generation has so much wisdom and knowledge that could be passed on to those who might not know why films like Citizen Kane or Jules and Jim are so groundbreaking. Will their knowledge fade along with them? Or will they use their experience for the purposes to mentor and to edify?

How things play will play out remains to be seen (I am not optimistic). But despite my disagreements with her point, I think someone like Anne Thompson joining us for a discussion on a film geek podcast is a good first step.